Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Stunning Difficulties

I am continuously “stunned” how so few people link social upheaval, violent surges of angry rebels and utter and despicable acts with global climate change. Turn millions of acres of farmland into dust, disenfranchise and impoverish well over a million farmers and their families, leaving them dangling in the wind and ignore their pleas… Well, it’s easy to recruit these angry souls, create religious blame among vulnerable people looking for answers, and channel anger via manipulative and charismatic leaders. This is the story of just Iraq and Syria. But the same story is playing out all over the Middle East, Africa, Asia and… well… in one way or another, everywhere.
The anti-Assad Syrian rebellion was born of this vicious leader’s turning a deaf ear towards well over a million Syrian farmers, their livelihoods decimated by an unending drought in the northeastern part of the country. The fact that these farmers, and the vast majority of Syrians, were Sunnis, and the Assad regime Shiite, was not lost on religious zealots. When the al-Maliki regime (recently replaced) in Iraq, a country with a 60% Shiite majority, began systematically removing Sunnis from positions of power within the government and the military, that same drought that impacted Syria was having a parallel impact on large sections of Iraq, coincidentally in regions that were heavily Sunni.
When the United States deposed an Iraqi Sunni-leader – Saddam Hussein – in 2003 and imposed a “democracy,” the resulting “majority” of Shiite wasted no time disenfranchising Sunnis. Baghdad erupted in bomb attacks. Sunnis retaliating against Shiites.  Kurds circled their wagons and ran their part of the country autonomously, ignoring Shiite attempts to govern them. We sat by.
The drought rolled in. Disenfranchisement of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq continued. Religious zealots saw the opportunity. ISIL was born. And still, we will not recognize how global warming created both the motivation for the insurgency and provided willing combatants by the thousands. To our policy-makers, it was all about religious zeal and political missteps… But would that religious-political zeal have so strongly resonated with so many people without that climate-change induced drought?
Grain production in the region has declined precipitously, and ISIL has seized some of the last large stretches of food-producing acreage as well as structures where sharvested grain is stored. How do you suppose they are using that power? “The group now controls a large chunk of Iraq’s wheat supplies. The United Nations estimates land under IS control accounts for as much as 40 percent of Iraq’s annual production of wheat, one of the country’s most important food staples alongside barley and rice. The militants seem intent not just on grabbing more land but also on managing resources and governing in their self-proclaimed caliphate.
“Wheat is one tool at their disposal. The group has begun using the grain to fill its pockets, to deprive opponents – especially members of the Christian and Yazidi minorities – of vital food supplies, and to win over fellow Sunni Muslims as it tightens its grip on captured territory. In Iraq’s northern breadbasket, much as it did in neighboring Syria, IS has kept state employees and wheat silo operators in place to help run its empire.” Reuters, September 30th.
We can also see some nasty climate-events in the Western world, particularly as the United States faces the polar vortex, western states droughts and fire, and flooding in places where raging waters were only a very rare occurrence. Our battles have not risen to the level of violent upheaval; instead, most of us in the West are looking for technology solutions, drought-resistant crops, water-extraction systems and prudent new irrigation methods. Australia spent almost $14 billion a few years ago to provide desalinization capacity for its largest cities, all of which are coastal. California is beginning to build that capacity as well.
There are still climate change-deniers who believe in deus ex machina – divine intervention – under a belief that the Bible promised no more mega-disasters after the Great Flood and that earth’s natural resources were there for unbridled exploitation by man. Fortunately, even the Evangelical community seems to be turning around somewhat, but there is absolutely no further excuse for believing this is a problem that is just going to go away. We really need to be aware of the consequences… that economic decimation from climate change does result in political instability and even violence.
One more giant piece of the explanation puzzle has fallen in place, albeit in the strength of scientific opinion that is not 100% free from doubt. Australia’s fires. “Five groups of researchers, using distinct methods, analyzed the heat that baked Australia for much of 2013 and continued into 2014, briefly shutting down the Australian Open tennis tournament in January when the temperature climbed to 111 degrees Fahrenheit… All five research groups came to the conclusion that last year’s heat waves could not have been as severe without the long-term climatic warming caused by human emissions.
“‘When we look at the heat across the whole of Australia and the whole 12 months of 2013, we can say that this was virtually impossible without climate change,’ said David Karoly, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne who led some of the research… The findings relied on computer analyses of what the climate would have been like in the absence of human-caused greenhouse emissions, a type of research widely acknowledged to be imperfect, and which often produces conflicting findings from different groups. But scientists said the results in this case were strengthened by the unanimity of the papers, written by veteran research teams scattered around the world.
“‘The evidence in those papers is very strong,’ said Martin P. Hoerling, an American scientist with the [U.S.] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has often been skeptical of claimed links between weather events and global warming.” New York Times, September 29th.
In the end, it is just too easy to look at causes for disruption and religiously-induced political violence on the most basic analytical terms. We can understand these issues. We can deploy military forces and supply arms to our side of combatants, practices with which we are both familiar and comfortable, no matter how costly and lethal these solutions may be. The paths to deal with such issues seem so much easier and more linear than the notion of redesigning almost every facet of human existence, energy generation and usage and consumption waste to deal with that rather clear massive contributor to violent and economic disruption. But not addressing the big picture will only accelerate the problems that have their roots in the Big One: Climate Change.
I’m Peter Dekom, and the piper has arrived with palm outstretched.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pride in the Ranks

The Secret Service is part of the Department of the Treasury. Forge some U.S. currency and sooner or later, you can expect a visit from these esteemed (? the subject of today’s blog ?) organization. But they are best known for their duties protecting the President of the United States. The plainclothes division of the Service protects the President and his family. They are the folks who place themselves in harm’s way, between a would-be assassin and the most powerful political leader in the world. Their vigilant eyes, their physical endurance and their willingness to die in the pursuit of their duties have inspired books, Hollywood films and have been replayed as attackers have, mostly, failed in their attempts.
But the reputation of these tough protectors has been sullied over the past few years. Two years ago, it was a blackmail attempt that revealed a little side action between a Secret Service agent and a hooker in Cartagena… an event that was covered up by his fellow agents. Resignations are reassignments followed. In April of this year, drinking incidents tarnished the Service’s reputation of five more agents (including one agent found passed out in Amsterdam). More resignations and reassignments.
For those assigned to protect the White House itself, mostly from the Uniformed Division of the Secret Service, two recent incidents – where intruders jumped the White House fence and ran across the lawn to the building itself (one beyond front door and allegedly up the staircase, heading towards the First Family’s living quarters) – added more tarnish to their badges. There are five concentric rings of uniformed Secret Service protection around the White House (between the sidewalk outside the White House and the structure itself), but somehow these intruders (one with 800 rounds of ammunition stashed in his nearby car) managed to breach these protective layers. Okay, we got it. Not all is well in the performance standards with this specialized body of federal agents. But there is a bigger problem afoot within the agency.
With so much sensitive work in their hands, with so much at stake in a world filled with murderous terrorists and criminal cartels, you’d want such agents to have fierce pride, solid dedication and spirits soaring at their consummate professionalism under such solemn responsibility. Well, given the recent rust and tarnish, that is hardly the case. The telltale signs of a dispirited corps are everywhere, and it’s going to take some powerful new and inspirational leadership to reverse this upsetting trend.
“The latest Best Places to Work in the Federal Government report by the Partnership for Public Service, depicts an agency that seems to have lost its way. The agency’s index score dropped 13 points over three years, from 65.8 in 2011 to 52.8 last year. The score is a measure of employee satisfaction and commitment.
“‘These numbers are a blinking warning sign that something has gone off track here,’ said John Palguta, a Partnership vice president… The report indicates the employee attitudes at the agency are ‘worse than most, going in the wrong direction,’ he added… Out of 300 agencies, the Secret Service ranked 226.” Washington Post, September 26th. Serious problems have thus impacted both the uniformed and plainclothes operations.
To some agents, the failures simply represent a “never again” challenge. They are dedicated civil servants committed to their responsibilities. But for others, bad morale takes a bit of the edge off, a sharpness that makes them a cut above anyone who might cross their path or thwart their mission. And for a few, sustaining the myth of Secret Service invulnerability, never challenging the defects, and standing with the team no matter what is a stressful and dispiriting practice that has led to the debacles discussed above. While a top-down change appears necessary, there are a lot of exceptional men and women in the service who are ready to lay down their lives to protect our leaders. We need to cherish as truly the best and the brightest.
Nevertheless, this is a morale problem we cannot ignore. As Congressional hearings ask the tough questions, their quest for answers need to be tempered with a realization that Congress itself could drop Service morale one giant notch farther down the scale.  We need to fix the problem, not grandstand to make it worse. Leadership failures should not be charged to the Service’s rank and file; they are special, and we need to make sure they know that we know that.
 I’m Peter Dekom, and there is a fine line between solving problems and simply making them worse.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

What Got Boko Haram a Really Big Head Start

While this blog focuses on practices in Nigeria, it is only an example of what has become a pervasive global practice. According to Amnesty International, the use of torture has increased 600% if the past decade and is still routinely used in 141 countries.
The information gleaned from these unreliable procedures often results in more arrests and more tortures as interrogation victims feel they have to “give someone up” – possibly an innocent – just to stop the pain. It makes voluntary cooperation with authorities unlikely (what if they want more from me?), turns just plain folks into government-hating citizens, occasionally angry enough to betray their own country. Mistrust, distrust, hatred, rage. So much of the violence we see in so many parts of the world was born of these practices.
When Boko Haram first surfaced in Northern Nigeria, it began winning the hearts and minds of the locals simply by killing the solider/police most responsible for these interrogation abuses, challenging these imperious forces who acted more like brutal invaders than officers of the law they were supposed to enforce. Indeed, soldier/police abused and pummeled their citizens without limits, often seeking bribes and “protection money” to refrain from inflicting their “violence under the mantle of government authority” on their own people.
An Amnesty International report published September 18th notes that Nigerian “Security forces are able to act in a climate of impunity. This report reveals the experiences of former detainees who have been tortured in police and military custody and the government’s failure to prevent such violations or to bring suspected perpetrators to justice.”
Nigeria is simply so corrupt that there are literally no internal government forces remotely capable of stemming this wide-spread practice. As horrible as Boko Haram’s current practices are, including the applying comparable practices but adding mass murder and kidnapping to erase Western influence from the region, they are often seen as the lesser of two evils by locals.
“Torture has become such an integral part of policing in Nigeria that many stations have an informal torture officer, Amnesty International says… Both the military and police use a wide range of torture methods including beatings, nail and teeth extractions and other sexual violence, it says… One woman accused of theft in Lagos said she was sexually assaulted, and had tear gas sprayed into her vagina.
“Entitled Welcome to Hell Fire, [the Amnesty International report referenced aboves,] says people are often detained in large dragnet operations and tortured as punishment, to extort money or to extract ‘confessions’ as a way to solve cases… [While these techniques antedated and incited Boko Haram’s spectacular growth, the] use of torture is particularly extreme in the north-east in the war against Boko Haram Islamist militants, Amnesty says.
“The UK-based rights group says between 5,000 and 10,000 people have been arrested there since 2009, and executions [without the benefit of a trial or a conviction] in overcrowded detention facilities are common.
“A teenage boy, [disfigured with molten plastic], was among 50 people arrested by the army in Pokiskum in Yobe state last year on suspicion being a member of the Boko Haram… At the time he was 15 years old and spent three weeks in custody in Damaturu and said he was beaten continuously with gun butts, batons and machetes.” BBC.com, September 18th.
You have to ask yourself how groups that inflict mass horrors get started in the first place. It may come from “nothing left to lose” hopelessness as callous nations ignore the immediate needs of hordes of displaced citizens – as occurred in both Syria and Iraq as global warming reduced hundreds of thousands of once productive farms to permanent dust. Or it can be a reaction to brutal governments inflicting torture – often motivated simply to secure bribes and protection money – under the guise of justice and crime-solving.
And as we have seen with the Islamic State’s mimicking the orange uniforms of our Guantanamo prison facility and applying the same waterboarding techniques which the United States admitted using, they are happy to advertise our bully-torturer reputation to the world, even as their ultra-violence exceeds anything we have seen in centuries. It seems pretty clear that too many irregular (government?) forces around the world feel fully justified using torture on U.S. captives simply as a quid pro quo to our own notorious practices. They we have forsworn using these techniques is a subtlety that is lost on them.
Our commitment to root out torturers, to decry the practice and seek prosecution and universal condemnation for those who condone and practice torture, is really a powerful gesture that may stem the rise of violent rebels, particularly those with killing the United States as their long-term goal.
 I’m Peter Dekom, and whether we do it for our own selfish reasons or because it is morally the only correct choice, we must join together to stop torture wherever we find it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Daesh to the Finish Line

Daesh is Arabic shorthand for the Islamic State. With the post-fall-of-Sunni-leader-Saddam-Hussein (thanks to the U.S.) powerful alliance with fellow Shiites in Iran (well over 90% of the population are Shiites), Iraq (60%; Shiites dominate the government) is exceptionally distrustful of the anti-Iranian United States of America. Despite the fact that the fundamentalist Sunni Islamic State would love to annihilate every Shiite on earth, neither the Iraqi nor Iranian governments are happy about seeing the United States military in their sphere of influence.
Why else would the Iraqi government suggest that the Iraqi Army is more than enough of a ground force (keeping whatever assistance they get from the U.S. military up in the sky with almost no presence physically in Iraq) to protect their country? Yup, that same Iraqi Army that turned tail and deserted their posts, turning over the cash cow of productive oil fields, leaving hundreds of millions of first rate military equipment for ISIS to take. Daesh now controls an area of Syria and Iraq roughly the size of Indiana.
There are few American generals with recent Iraqi field experience who believe that the Iraqi Army is remotely capable of fending off the well-trained, well-funded, highly motivated, and well-equipped Islamic State military. Our own Congress is afraid of “mission creep” whereby the United States – first through special ops and then through a steady but great deployment of additional ground forces as Iraqi forces fail to protect major strategic targets.
But many regional Shiites fear the United States more than the Islamic State. As odd as it seems, too many of them – even many in their leadership – believe that the United States maintains a secret relationship with that Islamic State specifically to crush the equally-heavily-anti-American Shiite power in the region (Iran and its supporters in Iraq). We witness innocent Americans being beheaded by the IS. That the United States is secretly allied with the IS is ludicrous to anyone in the West, but this theory is growing in popularity in Shiite-dominated lands. And for many Shiites who don’t buy that theory, they at least blame American interference in Iraq and elsewhere in the Islamic world for the very power and existence of the Islamic State; but for the United States, there would be no IS, they reason… and perhaps there is a touch of truth to that assertion.
So when U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, suggests there is a role for Iran in the battle against the Islamic State, Iranian eyes roll and skepticism is so strong that few believe that such an alliance is remotely possible. Iran does not believe the Islamic State could ever mount a successful military campaign against the powerful Iranian army. Would that feeling change if IS ever wound up invading Iran itself? Would Iran still believe that the IS was acting with the covert support of the U.S. itself?
While Sunni or secular-dominated regional states fear the IS beyond words, when you see how open local Iraqi leaders are about U.S. responsibility for the Islamic State, you have to wonder how any coalition could ever work... rather strange when you accept that Iran and Syria are the two areas that have most suffered from successful conquest by the IS (Daesh).
‘We know about who made Daesh,’ said Bahaa al-Araji, a [Shiite] deputy prime minister… at a [September 20th] demonstration called by the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr [leader of the one of the Shiite militias] to warn against the possible deployment of American ground troops. Mr. Sadr publicly blamed the C.I.A. for creating the Islamic State in a speech [in mid-September], and interviews suggested that most of the few thousand people at the demonstration, including dozens of members of Parliament, subscribed to the same theory. (Mr. Sadr is considered close to Iran, and the theory is popular there as well.)
“The prevalence of the theory in the streets underscored the deep suspicions of the American military’s return to Iraq more than a decade after its invasion, in 2003. The casual endorsement by a senior official, though, was also a pointed reminder that the new Iraqi government may be an awkward partner for the American-led campaign to drive out the extremists…
The demonstration on [September 20th] was the latest in a series of signals from Shiite leaders or militias, especially those considered close to Iran, warning the United States not to put its soldiers back on the ground. Mr. Obama has pledged not to send combat troops, but he seems to have convinced few Iraqis. ‘We don’t trust him,’ said Raad Hatem, 40… Haidar al-Assadi, 40, agreed. ‘The Islamic State is a clear creation of the United States, and the United States is trying to intervene again using the excuse of the Islamic State,’ he said.” New York Times, September 20th.
There is a general prevalence of thought across the Middle East and other Islamic regions, even among our allies, that the United States pretty much did itself vast harm in its failed efforts in the Iraq and Afghanistan. They see United States’ involvement as an evil necessity because of our capability plus our willingness to fund a very expensive part of this military effort, but they also squirm in discomfort at the thought of another American military foray into the Middle East.
That so much funding for the IS is coming from within some of our closest allies doesn’t make this effort any easier. The Islamic State would love a direct confrontation with the United States and the West; they believe God is on their side. Our fear, of course, is that if we do not contain the Islamic State “there,” they will find ways to bring their fight “here” to American shores… attacks that might make 9/11/01 seem relatively minor. Just think about how many IS “recruits” are coming from various nations around the world, places like the U.K., Germany… and the United States.
 I’m Peter Dekom, and our mishandling of and military policy for well over a decade has complicated our very necessary commitment to help crush the ultra-malevolent, al Qaeda on steroids, Islamic State.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Problem with Averages

Perhaps the most valuable tool for someone who wants to lie with statistics: average numbers. Here’s a simple example. A feudal lord generates ten million ducats a year from the gatherings of his 1,000 peasants, who generate about 100 ducats each a year for themselves (which generates 100,000 ducats to them all). He has to pay an army of 100, 1,000 ducats each a year (another 100,000 ducats) to protect his fiefdom. It costs the lord one million ducats a year to equip his army and pay his operating costs, and he has to remit another two million ducats a year to placate the king. So the poor lord has to take a 3.2 million dollar a year hit to his precious earnings, leaving him with a mere 6.8 million ducats. The average household income for everyone in this fiefdom is thus 6.8M/1101 = 6176 ducats per household, a healthy living. But if you take that lord’s income out of the mix – one single household – the “average earnings per household” in the fiefdom is 200K/1101 = 181 ducats! A 5994 ducat difference! The hoi polio make an “average” of less than 3% of what the lord makes.
And so it is with raw unemployment numbers, the earnings in the United States, the concentration of wealth at the top and household net worth. The numbers tell you that we are so into the recovery that we have absolutely nothing to worry about. But actual, inflation-corrected buying power for Americans outside-the-top-five-percent-statistics has been falling without let-up, year after year for well over a decade without relenting. Every darn year, this vast array of Americans has less buying power than they did the year before, just as they are watching the low-paying nature and the lack of growth and promotion potential in the vast majority of the new jobs that have been added to the economy. Student loans are mounting without the supporting earning power to pay them back.
But let’s focus on one of these mendacious statistics: household net worth. “The net worth of American households is now 20 percent higher than it was before it began to decline in 2007, the Federal Reserve reported... It said the households together were worth $81.5 trillion at the end of the second quarter, higher than ever and up 10 percent from a year earlier... By another measure, household net worth is a little short of the record highs reached before the recession. It amounted to 471 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product in the second quarter, just short of the record 473 percent set in early 2007.” New York Times, September 19th. Wow! Great news, huh?! Even adjusted for inflation, the numbers show a rise of over 4% from 2007.
Catch 22: “The biggest gains for households came in the equity markets. The Fed said households now owned $21 trillion in stock and mutual fund shares, 37 percent more than seven years earlier and almost 160 percent more than they owned at the bottom of the bear market in 2009.
“While many people own stocks and mutual fund shares, by far the largest holdings are among those who are the wealthiest. In 2012, more than a third of dividends reported on tax returns went to taxpayers earning at least $2 million a year. That is more than double the share of dividends that went to those with taxable incomes of $100,000 or less…
“Seven years after households’ financial conditions began to deteriorate in 2007, their net worth is 20 percent higher than the prerecession peak. Real estate values have not completely recovered, but households have a lot more money in the bank and have profited from rising stock prices. Their total debt is little changed from prerecession levels, but the makeup of that debt has changed. Households owe less in mortgage and credit card debts, but auto loans are up and student loan debt has doubled.” NY Times. But the overall net worth of households out of the top tiers, corrected for inflation, is less than pre-2007 numbers.
With interest rates and bond yields low, debt holdings continue to generate lower return unless you get to borrow money from the fed at almost nothing and get to use that money to buy equities or lend at higher rates (we call them banks that are part of larger financial institutions), the equity markets are where the money is… but has the stock market peaked? Today, if the bulk of your net worth comes from owning stocks and other equities, you are in good shape. If not, hey, you truly are average! And you get to read one new statistic after another about how the rich get richer… and you most certainly do not.
 I’m Peter Dekom, and for politicians who even care what life is like for most of us, they are going to see anger, polarization, disenchantment and disengagement from their constituencies until they deal with this income inequality issue and level that playing field.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Whole System Fails Each and Every One of Us

I recently blogged about how North Carolina has found a way to reduce the consequences for minor probation violators. One comment suggested that those in prison or who violate probation orders belong there. But prison isn’t accomplishing much of anything for those who are incarcerated… and since the vast majority of those prisoners will be released… for society in general.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics tells us that three out of four released convicts are re-arrested within five years. So once we send someone to prison, we are pretty much assured that they will remain on the wrong side of the law. Because our school system failed them? Because once inside, even non-gang members were forced to join a gang for self-protection? Because few employers will give them an opportunity to make a decent living so they revert to crime? Because prisons are the best “schools of crime” in the world? Because forcing someone to live in foul hell – where fights and physical danger, where long-term isolation for some results in permanent psychological damage are normal – engenders anger and bitterness that never goes away?
Yes, many people do have to go behind bars. Violent crimes are particularly an obvious justification. But when we send someone to prison/jail, we are pretty much creating a vastly bigger problem for the rest of us… sooner or later. Even those who will never be released have an opportunity inflict pain and criminal training on those who will. With 25% of the planet’s incarcerated prisoners and only 5% of global population, it is crystal clear that our entire prison philosophy is seriously hurting most of us. With 2.4 million current U.S. inmates, the number of prisoners has quadrupled since 1980. It’s expensive, running from a very-low $21,000 to $45,000 a year per inmate to house. 
Prison sentences have grown longer in our “get tough on crime” era, but society most certainly has not benefited. I’ve blogged on how most of those inside are there because of drug-related offenses. According to the August 13, 213 Washington Post, the most serious crime for half of federal inmates and 20% of state prisoners was a pure drug crime. The system has failed us. Watch any prison show (there are lots!), and you will see the gangs, the segregation units, the raw brutality faced by just about every inmate in every prison, and you begin to see that there is very little real control of these institutions by the staff.
The inmates set the rules, many killing and stabbing with little fear of further punishment (many are lifers or have traded absolute fealty to gangs for protection). Why is it virtually inevitable that anyone going to jail faces the kind of violence we call torture if it were directly administered by the “authorities”? If we know this is the fate for most prisoners, are we actually guilty of suborning that torture? Don’t we have a responsibility to stop that practice? But with too many prisoners, nobody is even ready to address that obvious reform.
To make matters worse, those running prisons have a vested interest in covering up what’s really going on inside. And since most of us have little or no sympathy for those convicted, fixing a violent system has become seriously deprioritized. Let’s look at “liberal” New York City, specifically at cover-ups at Rikers Island. “After years of teenage inmates being slashed, stabbed and maimed, it appeared that the jail for adolescents at Rikers Island had finally been brought under control. In April 2011, a new warden and deputy warden were named, and almost immediately, official tallies of inmate fights fell by two-thirds.
“The correction commissioner at the time hailed the accomplishment at a City Council hearing and gave the men an award for their ‘exceptional efforts.’ Within a month, both officials were promoted… Then came the tip to Correction Department investigators: Violence wasn’t down. The data was wrong.
“A dozen investigators eventually produced a confidential report, obtained by The New York Times, which concluded that hundreds of inmate fights had been omitted from departmental statistics; that the warden, William Clemons, and the deputy warden, Turhan Gumusdere, had ‘abdicated all responsibility’ in reporting the statistics and that both should be demoted.” New York Times, September 21st. In short, they doctored the statistics, completely failed to address the problem, and that was good enough for the City’s leaders. They furnished the mendacious report to the federal government as well.
“The commissioner at the time, Dora B. Schriro, did not demote the men. Instead, she ordered the removal from the report of any implication that the pair were culpable, current and former officials said.
“Then city officials provided only the sanitized report to the United States attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York, which was conducting its own investigation into potential civil rights violations in the handling of teenage inmates at Rikers. As part of its investigation, the office had made repeated requests to the Correction Department for all relevant documents and asked, in particular, for any materials associated with audits or reviews related to violence by staff on adolescent inmates or between the inmates themselves.” NY Times.
The story is repeated across the United States every day. And when these inmates are released, as most of them will, exactly how will their prison experience have made them better qualified to be part of society… that same society where you live, work and play… and in which your kids also live, work and play?
     I’m Peter Dekom, and exactly how do you like paying a lot for a system that makes your life much more dangerous and risky?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

1.4 Million Cases

It’s a tiny percentage of the world’ population, focused on a tiny part of the earth’s land surface, in one of the tiniest economies on the globe on the poorest and most troubled populated continent on the map. Moreover, it involves Black Africans, a racial minority in the Western world, where the West looks upon Black Africa as a place of vile revolutions, genocide, raping and pillaging, corruption, wars without end, starvation, malevolent dictators, zealots, drought and ceaseless misery. Boko Haram is a continental stone’s throw away. We’re used to suffering, death and destruction in that part of the world. The misery is “there” and impacts “them,” a swipe of racism tinging those words.
But West Africa may just be our test of morality, far more than our contest with the evil forces of the Islamic Republic that represent a huge embarrassment to American policy-makers over the past decade plus, who seem to have fought a failed war in Iraq and are ending a failing war in Afghanistan. In West Africa, we’re not covering up our mistakes. The misery there cannot be “our fault” in any way; it’s nature’s wrath, the deadly Ebola virus, that has killed thousands (half in Liberia). It has elevated the United Nations to an unprecedented high priority focus on an epidemic, one that could indeed spread and mutate across the earth.
But it doesn’t make too many headlines anymore, and this horrific and seeming incurable disease sometimes slips off the headline page (paper or online) into the back pages dedicated to backwater stories about backwater peoples. A Centers for Disease Control report released on September 22nd says that the number of those infected with this killer disease is expanding very rapidly: “The report released [September 22nd] is a tool the agency has developed to help with efforts to slow transmission of the epidemic and estimate the potential number of future cases. Researchers say the total number of cases is vastly underreported by a factor of 2.5 in Sierra Leone and Liberia, two of the three hardest-hit countries. Using this correction factor, researchers estimate that approximately 21,000 total cases will have occurred in Liberia and Sierra Leone by Sept. 30. Reported cases in those two countries are doubling approximately every 20 days, researchers said.
“‘Extrapolating trends to January 20, 2015, without additional interventions or changes in community behavior,’ such as much-improved safe burial practices, the researchers estimate that the number of Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone could be between approximately 550,000 to 1.4 million.” Washington Post, September 22nd. The report also suggests that these numbers might be conservative and that many have been turned away from hospitals because there is no more room.
Matters may be somewhat more dire than originally forecast, although those who receive proper medical care have shown significantly higher survival rates: “Projections published in The New England Journal of Medicine predict that by early November there will have been nearly 20,000 cases…. The analysis of confirmed cases also suggests death rates are higher than previously reported at about 70% of all cases, rather than 50%.
“Dr Christopher Dye, Director of Strategy for [the World Health Organization], said unless control measures improved quickly ‘these [West African] countries will soon be reporting thousands of cases and deaths each week, projections that are similar to those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’… The CDC said that there could be up to 21,000 reported and unreported cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone alone by the end of this month.” BBC.com, September 23rd.
Make no mistake, the United States has responded beyond the medical volunteers and missionaries, some of whom have perished in the process. The effort, however, represents little more than a drop in the bucket. The notion is for the U.S. military to set up some treatment facilities, including a small mobile hospital (25 beds) in Liberia that will treat medical workers who have been infected: “The United States recently launched a $750 million effort to establish treatment facilities in Liberia, and the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously last week to create an emergency medical mission to respond to the outbreak. In addition, the WHO is launching an effort to move infected people out of their homes and into small centers that would provide at least rudimentary levels of care, in hopes of increasing survival rates and slowing the transmission of the disease.” Washington Post.
But even as the area needs over a thousand beds to treat this epidemic, the U.S. is not willing to risk putting the number of U.S. personnel on the ground required to build and maintain the required additional capacity.
What exactly does the CDC say needs to be done stop crush this epidemic? “[CDC Director Tom Frieden] said ‘We anticipate that [focusing on the heavily infected areas, adopting new sanitation rules and isolating patients] will slow the spread of the epidemic,’ [adding that the] estimates in the report are based on data from August and ‘reflect a moment in time before recent significant increases in efforts to improve treatment and isolation.’ [He noted that] the tool developed by the CDC to make these projections provides the ability to help Ebola response planners make more informed decisions on the emergency response to help bring the outbreak under control – and what can happen if these resources are not brought to bear quickly.
“‘It is still possible to reverse the epidemic, and we believe this can be done if a sufficient number of all patients are effectively isolated, either in Ebola Treatment Units or in other settings, such as community-based or home care,’ he said. ‘Once a sufficient number of Ebola patients are isolated, cases will decline very rapidly – almost as rapidly as they rose.’” Washington Post. But suspicion that outside world, particularly some of the voluntary health professionals that have risked their lives to reach into infected areas, actually brought the disease with them has added a layer of risk to an already deadly situation.
Sadly, existing medical capacities in the most-impacted nations are abysmal:
Liberia with a 4.2m population: 51 doctors; 978 nurses and midwives; 269 pharmacists.
“Sierra Leone with a 6m population: 136 doctors; 1,017 nurses and midwives; 114 pharmacists.” BBC.com, September 24th. To make matters worse, this medical crisis actually threatens these nations’ very political survival: “"The worst-hit countries now face widespread chaos and, potentially, collapse,’ the International Crisis Group (ICG) said.” BBC.copm.
Is our increasing our response a moral imperative or a necessary selfish act to keep the disease from drifting into a wider infectious path? Given the movement of people across international boundaries, are we facing a bigger risk or is this simply a case of “them” over “there”?
 I’m Peter Dekom, and in a troubled world, humanity and inhumanity seem to struggle on a daily basis.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Income Inequality – the Vicious Spiral

Today’s blog is not about the obvious parts of that spiral – the self-perpetuating upper-income classes where their children get the best educations and deep pockets from day one – generation after generation. Today, we are looking at the immediate impact on states, the major providers of public education at every level, the powers that decide infrastructure priorities, and the politicians who are struggling to find money for the 2.7 trillion dollars of unfunded pension and retiree health benefits to state and municipal civil servants (past and present). Instead of fixing roads and educate our future competitive generations, state and local governments are simply looking for more programs to cut.
On September 15, credit rating service Standard & Poor’s – an agency that rates state and local bonds overall creditworthiness – issued a report on exactly how income inequality is making it increasingly difficult to generate the kind of state and local tax base needed for so many communities to dig themselves out of the financial hole (cut services and massive debt) that they were shoved into in recent years. What’s worse, they are equally unable to provide current cost-effective basic services to their constituents.
The September 15th Washington Post summarizes: “Even as income has accelerated for the affluent, it has barely kept pace with inflation for most other people. That trend can mean a double whammy for states: The wealthy often manage to shield much of their income from taxes. And they tend to spend less of it than others do, thereby limiting sales tax revenue.
“As the growth of tax revenue has slowed, states have faced tensions over whether to raise taxes or cut spending to balance their budgets as required by law... ‘Rising income inequality is not just a social issue,’ said Gabriel Petek, the S&P credit analyst who wrote the report. ‘It presents a very significant set of challenges for the policymakers.’
“Stagnant pay for most people has compounded the pressure on states to preserve funding for education, highways and social programs such as Medicaid. The investments in education and infrastructure also have fueled economic growth. Yet they’re at risk without a strong flow of tax revenue… The prospect of raising taxes to balance a state budget is a politically delicate one. States have used the allure of low taxes to spur job creation by attracting factories, businesses and corporate headquarters…
“Income inequality isn’t the only factor slowing state tax revenue. Online retailers account for a rising chunk of consumer spending, yet they often can avoid sales taxes. Consumers are spending more on untaxed services, too.
“S&P’s analysis builds on a previous report this year in which it said the widening gap between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else has slowed the U.S. economy’s recovery from the Great Recession. Because consumer spending fuels about 70 percent of the economy, weak pay growth typically slows economic growth.”
If the largest U.S. corporations have figured out how to take the 35% federal corporate tax rate down to an average effective rate of 13%, particularly with the use of off-shore structuring, they have made mincemeat out of state and local taxes. Big companies, seeking concessions to relocate or simply to stay in play, often negotiate favorable tax rates – from property to income tax – from states desperate for the jobs. They’re desperate in other ways too.
States have found ways to squeeze money out of the feds by, for example, gaming the Medicaid system by artificially allocating charges and controlling benefits to up the federal contribution well beyond permitted limits: “The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs Medicaid through its Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), has known about the issue for more than a decade, but states still find ways to game the system.” Washington Post, September 15th. Hundreds of millions of dollars in some states! But unlike the feds, the states can’t “print money” (increasing the money supply); they have to beg, borrow and… yup… steal.
I’ve already blogged at length on what needs to be done – disallowing value transfers by American companies to their foreign controlled entities so that those are no longer “deductions” to the US entity, repatriating earnings overseas to face US tax liability, eliminating the carried interest rule and extending capital gains over several years (not mere 12 months), nullifying “inversions” where US companies simply more their headquarters overseas with a little merger trick and reinstating taxes on intergenerational transfers of wealth.
As layoff kings, “replace people with robotic automation” czars (where labor once got paid, the owners of the machines that replaced them now get paid) and “outsourcing” mavens, these corporations  and mega-wealthy families can no longer be the tax-avoidance sacred cows of our times. It is time to milk the cow and level the playing field.
 I’m Peter Dekom, and the oddest part of all of this is the reality that even for the mega-wealthy the long-term ramifications of income inequity offer horrific consequences in terms of both economic growth and quality of life.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Background Checks Hurt Gun Sales – Oh No!

Despite America’s gun-manufacturers principal marketing arm’s (the National Rifle Association’s) effective lobbying to ban official government records of gun homicide statistics, a [non-government] “study by two New York City cardiologists found that the U.S. has 88 guns per 100 people and 10 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people — more than any of the other 27 developed countries they studied.” ABCNews.com, September 19, 2013. The subtext is that guns have so proliferated the country that to get new gun sales to spur profits, manufacturers need existing gun owners to purchase additional weapons (you’ve the basics, now buy the exotics!), and they need to make sure that the pool of available buyers is as big as it can be.
And with 40% of all guns sales going through private sellers (mostly at gun shows) where background checks do not apply, and to make sure that online sales from unlicensed sellers are as wide open as possible – again avoiding meaningful background checks – the NRA has to make sure that any American groundswell to effect limits on gun ownership be crushed into dust and extinguished as quickly as possible. But most voters accept that, as a minimum, keeping guns out of obviously foul or dangerous hands is a good idea. Bad for gun sales though, and that gun-manufacturers’ powerful lobby – the NRA – has to figure out what to do about that. And since they seem to have more power than any legislative body in the United States, they are damned good at getting their way.
Take the current ballot battles over background checks in Washington State: “A new study [of buyers and sellers in Washington State] suggests a significant portion of those buyers — at least 10 percent — would fail a background check conducted by a licensed dealer… The study, conducted by the pro-gun control group Everytown For Gun Safety, examined sales through several Web sites that serve as online portals for firearms dealers. Sites like Armslist, Northwest Firearms, Outdoors Trader, Washington Gun Trader and Gun Listings all allow sellers to list their weapons for sale, and buyers to post notices searching for specific kinds of firearms.
“Those sites featured advertisements for nearly 17,000 weapons during a recent five-month stretch, Everytown researchers found. At the same time, another 1,164 buyers posted advertisements looking for weapons. When the group matched public records with any identifying information the buyers posted, they found almost 10 percent — eight out of 81 identifiable buyers — would be barred from buying a gun from a licensed dealer…
“‘[T]he background check system is effectively preventing criminals from obtaining guns at licensed gun dealers — but unlicensed sellers who offer an open door for acquiring guns without background checks are attracting them instead,’ the authors of the Everytown report concluded.
“The prevalence of online sales, which are excluded from background check requirements, has shown up in licensed dealer sales: Since 2003, the number of gun sales denied because of a failed background check dropped by more than half. [Sure, instead buy where there aren’t any background checks!]
“Everytown is among the groups backing Initiative 594, a measure on the ballot this fall that would require background checks on the vast majority of gun transfers in Washington State, including online and at gun sales. Gun-rights activists [read: the NRA] oppose the initiative, which they say would unduly burden gun owners who try to transfer weapons legitimately, even to family members.
“Public polling shows I-594 passing by wide margins. But gun-rights advocates have their own alternative, Initiative 591, which would prohibit the state from enforcing background check measures that go beyond federal law. Some polls show that measure passing as well, leaving open the prospect of significant litigation after the election if both initiatives succeed.” Washington Post, September 17th. What one hand gives, the other takes away.
We are truly mad letting the gun manufacturers have their way with our gun safety laws, allowing their heavily subsidized NRA free reign to continue practices that have led to the highest “death by gun” statistics in the developed world.
 I’m Peter Dekom, and I know my railing won’t bring this pernicious lobbying effort to heel anytime soon but I have to try.